Post-Apocalyptic: The Past and the Future

We’ve seen a marked rise in appearances of post-apocalyptic worlds lately, from films (I Am Legend) to literature (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) to video games (Fallout 3). Even movies like Pixar’s wonderful Wall-E draw on post-apocalyptic images and themes.

Then there’s the zombie apocalypse, a well furrowed field of apocalyptic fiction, now firmly entrenched in pop culture, continuing to take shape in new films, games and books (like S.G. Browne’s Breathers).

My love affair with the post-apocalyptic came when I, a young Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast, discovered the game Gamma World, a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game from TSR. I found that post-apocalyptic worlds were a fascinating backdrop in which to tell stories. Aside from the overall theme—people trying to find hope and a future in wasted landscapes—there were countless other details that I found exciting. The mix of cultures and technology levels, for example. High-tech remnants of previous civilizations existing alongside primitive weapons and technology. Mutants wandering ruined landscapes with amazing and unexpected abilities. Worlds where the mundane, a can of beans or a street sign, suddenly became objects of value and power.

What spoke to me, what I found romantic about the genre, was clothing the familiar with the unfamiliar. Superimposing a fantastical, but translucent, setting upon our own, where if you look hard enough you can see the original background. The idea of someone scraping dust off a street sign that says “Wall Street” or climbing the remains of the Washington Monument.

It’s the part of Planet of the Apes when you see the buried Statue of Liberty, that “oh my god” moment when something that seems so other is exposed as something so familiar.

Gamma World was my introduction to the post-apocalyptic. Later, I came across the Battle Circle books by Piers Anthony which deals with a world after a nuclear blast and the fragmented society that comes out of it. Some of the humans left safeguard technology and learning while other nomadic tribes participate in ritualized fighting matches inside a circle.

From there I moved on to The Road Warrior and its less exciting sequel. To the future landscapes of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. To There Will Come Soft Rains. To Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, and Thundarr the Barbarian.

Then came the late 90s, and the release of Fallout, the computer game. Seeing it presented in game form, allowing me to become part of that world, gave me the same excitement I had when I’d first discovered the genre. Fallout was an incredible game in its own right, but the world that Interplay created was really the star. A future after a nuclear holocaust fully infused with the flavor of the 50s and 60s. The game allowed the player to explore and interact with a range of settings and characters, fully immersing one in the post-apocalyptic storyline. It spawned several sequels and spin-offs, most recently Fallout 3, which drapes the same world on a much more technologically advanced frame.

The causes of these little booms in post-apocalyptic worlds are difficult to determine. Is it simply a cyclical pattern, rising and falling in each generation, or is there a relation with current events? The last surge in post-apocalyptic fiction coincided with the Cold War, when it wasn’t too difficult to imagine a world recovering from a nuclear war. Today we have the specters of climate change, lack of renewable energy sources, and even meteor impact to worry about. But is the current manifestation of these ideas just nostalgia, a longing for simpler times when nuclear war was our main worry? Or is this a reflection of our current fears?

Most of these recent films and books and games were developed during a relatively prosperous time for the US and for much of the rest of the world. Now that the world is in a slightly more insecure place, will the allure of the postapocalyptic still remain? Will people want something more comforting, more reassuring to cling to?

I hope not. To me, post-apocalyptic stories are, at their heart, stories of hope. Of people finding a future and a glimmer of light in the dark days of a future landscape. They are stories of people overcoming the hardest of challenges. Surely they can serve as examples that we, on the other side, can conquer the same forces that might lead us there.

Whichever way the pendulum swings, I am doing my best to appreciate the examples that we’ve currently been given. In future posts, I will look at different explorations of post-apocalyptic worlds from books to games to film and television. Even comics. I hope you’ll join me.


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